Saturday, December 28, 2013

Merry Christmas, Right?

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the Second Chapter
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children. she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Merry Christmas, right?  Does your Nativity set have figures for this part of the story?  I went though my Nativity set box again, but I just can’t find the paranoid King Herod figure and the troop of murdering thugs to put out.  My set seems to run out of figures at the part of the story with Wise Men and their camels.  But here in the Gospel for today is Herod and his murdering troops, showing up on the fifth day of Christmas to chase the Holy Family off to Egypt and slaughter innocents because he felt tricked by the Wise Men.    
I have to admit, I really struggled with this lesson.  One powerful and cruel person forcing a family to leave their home strikes very close to my experience.  In my last Lutheran congregation it was one man who decided that he was going to run the congregation.  Not the pastor and not the council and not the whole congregation either... just him.  When I told him that’s not how things worked he told me yes it was and he would starve me out.  He would make sure people stopped giving so they couldn’t keep paying me and I would have to leave and that’s just what he did.  This lesson is hard because it first reminds me of that painful experience and THEN I feel guilty for feeling that way because even though that experience was terrible, and he was terrible, nobody died.  I think, I should really just get over it... but it’s hard. 
Then I struggled with this lesson because I read somewhere as I prepared for this sermon that in those days, Bethlehem was only about one third the size of Rockport... so, about 1000 people total, so ALL the children under 2 killed would have only been about 20 which is still horrible but not the tens of thousands that is sort of tradition.  Then I remembered that 20 is also the number of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary and so 20 still seems like way, way too many.
Then I struggled with this lesson because not having a home of your own, bouncing from place to place and knowing there is an approaching yet unknown date when you will be asked to move again is something I have come to relate to very much in the last year and a half.  Then that same guilt from before happens again because we actually do have a nice place right now.  Our moves here in Maine have not happened under mortar fire like they do for real, modern refugees.  We didn’t have to leave with just the clothes on our backs.  All our things haven’t been destroyed by a bomb or missile attack; they are just in storage in Lincolnville.  We don’t live in a tent in a refugee camp in the desert of Turkey or Kenya among the more than 10 million refugees in the world.  We live on Norton Pond and the power is even on. 
I’ve struggled with this lesson because on the one hand I feel like I can relate and on the other hand I have absolutely no right to complain.  I’ve struggled with this lesson not because it shows how cruel the world was 2000 years ago, but because the world seems just as cruel today, over 2000 years later.  I’ve struggled with this lesson because even though I think our country should be better than this, there are innocents around us every day who pay the price for those who, like Herod, fear loosing their power; who think they can only be successful only if everyone else is a failure.  So, one in five children in our country don’t know where their next meal will come from and 1.6 million children experienced homelessness in our country last year and at least 194 children have been shot to death in our country since the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown.  
I’ve struggled with this lesson because when I look around at our world today, I find that I am tempted to say something like, if ONLY we could have just ONE family being forced to flee in the night to safety and if ONLY 20 children died... THAT would be wonderful!  Wonderful?  Really?  No!  Not wonderful!  Still horrible!  I’ve struggled with this lesson because it makes the world back then, my personal world and the world we all live in now seem so painfully dark and it feels like God is absent.  So, Merry Christmas?  
Actually YES!  Merry Christmas!  Because mixed in with all the very real horror and pain there is light that shines into every one of those dark and painful places.  Mixed in with all the very real hurt and guilt and suffering that happens in each of our lives to one degree or another is God’s infinite, loving and transforming presence.   
In the lesson God sends an angel to advise Joseph but not JUST in Israel.  God also sends an angel to advise him in Egypt.  Like all of Scripture, the story for the characters way back then is good, but the metaphor... what this story means for us now... is so much better.  What this means is that God can, and even more importantly God DOES, go with us EVERYWHERE!  
Egypt becomes a powerful metaphor for everywhere we would rather not be:  A refugee camp, a hospital room, a prison cell, watching a loved one die, waiting for a box of food at a food bank, lying in an operating room, hiding in a locked down classroom, visiting your spouse in a nursing home, sleeping in a homeless shelter, loading the moving truck one more time, standing on the median holding a sign that says “Any help for my homeless family is appreciated.”  
Not only is God with us in whatever “Egypt” we might be facing but this story tells us that when we listen carefully we will hear that God is guiding us back to where we belong.  It is not God’s desire that anyone stay in those broken and painful places.  It is God’s desire that everyone and all of creation come home.  
It’s not news that my family’s life here in Maine has been a little more “Egypt-y” than we had hoped it would be when we moved here.  But this congregation, all of you have been God’s messenger of hope for us in the last year and a half.  You’ve helped us, hugged us, cried with us and cared for us in overwhelming and miraculous ways that have really helped restore a bit of my faith in the church.   
It is true that our world, even 2000 years later, is still a world where twisted people hurt others for profit and power every single day.  BUT, it is also true that THAT is not how God intends the world to be and over time, working through prophets and truth tellers and people willing to listen to God’s guidance and people willing to trust and hope and work in ways that give of themselves selflessly, God will bring us home from every single one of our Egypts... back to the Promised Land God created for us in the beginning.

So when you and I find ourselves chased by the madness of this world, may we listen carefully like Joseph.  When we find ourselves in any kind of “Egypt” may we trust enough to offer our bodies and minds like Mary and when we look out into the world or deeply into our souls and see only darkness, may we all come together and shine the life changing light of Christ into each others lives here in this congregation and in our community and our world.  May what the prophet spoke be fulfilled through us, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it!”  Amen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Vinalhaven Christmas

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 2nd Chapter
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to
whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 

When I was a kid, the thing that meant that Christmas was getting really close was when we brought the box with our Nativity set down from the attic.  Our set was a poured, white, ceramic set that my mom had made in a class.  She made it while my dad was in Vietnam and I think she did it more to keep busy than anything else. 

There is a legend that the first person to introduce the Nativity set at Christmas was Saint Francis.  He created this first Nativity set to make the birth of Jesus seem more real to the people where he lived.  He wasn’t trying to convince them that Jesus had really been born.  The people believed that just fine.   Instead, what he really wanted them to understand was that the message the shepherds heard... “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  He wanted his people, in that time, to hear that as not just a message for Jewish shepherds way back when, but as a message meant for THEM... that Jesus was born for THEM.   

To help them understand that, St. Francis made the Nativity characters to look like them.  He made the place where Jesus was born look like their Italian barns and put animals in the barn that were the same as the animals they took care of every day.  It didn’t teach them the history of the birth of Jesus, but it wasn’t supposed to.  Instead it taught them that Jesus was their Messiah too... that God loved them and cared about them, right there in their everyday, hardworking, just trying to get by, complaining when it’s too dang hot, gripping when it’s too dang cold, laughing in the good times, crying in the bad times lives.  God loved them too.  Right where they lived.  Just how they were.  God loved them too.   

In my family after we got down the Nativity set from the attic we would take books from the bookcase where it went and stack them up in little piles to make little hills and then cover them with a piece of green velvet to place the figures in their proper places.  The pieces didn’t look Middle Eastern or Jewish or like they were from 2000 years ago.  They looked more like they were from Europe in the Middle Ages but we didn’t really care.  Setting up that Nativity wasn’t supposed to remind my family that Jesus had been born.  We knew that.  What we needed from that Nativity is just what it gave us each year.  We needed a reminder that things would be OK.  That in spite of dad being gone on another tour of duty, God loved us and was watching out for us all.  That in spite of horrible things like cancer, addiction, and a deadly fire that hit our family, God was with us through it all.  We weren’t the family with the most troubles, but we weren’t ever the family with the least either.  No matter what happened that year, we set up that Nativity set and were reminded, “To US IS born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  

What Saint Francis had started spread around the world.  As the faith spread to different cultures so too did the Nativity Set.  Each country dressed the characters in the clothes they wore.  When the Nativity Set got to Scandinavia, reindeer looked on at the birth and Mary was blonde with blue eyes.  When it got to Africa, the characters looked African.  There were always characters playing music because music is always played as a woman gives birth.  In one culture there is a guy bringing beer, because in that culture you always bring a gift of beer for a birth!  In Japan, Mary was Asian and wore a Kimono, in Peru there are llamas watching, in far Northern Alaska, seals and polar bears watch while Mary looks over her new baby in an igloo wearing a fur lined coat.  

No matter where the people lived.  No matter what color their skin or hair or eyes, no matter what kind of cloths they wore or the kinds of animals they saw every day, the details of their Nativity Sets would change to look like they did, BUT the message stayed the same, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL people: to YOU is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

To the shepherds 2000 years ago in Israel, that was the message of Christmas:  God loves you unconditionally and has sent YOU His Son to show YOU that love.  To the people Saint Francis preached to 1000 years ago in Italy, that was the message of Christmas:  God loves you unconditionally and has sent YOU His Son to show YOU that love.  To my family back in the late 60’s and early 70’s with a dad doing a third tour flying combat missions over Vietnam that was the message of Christmas:  God loves you unconditionally and has sent YOU His Son to show YOU that love.  

Now, I can’t carve figures for you and your community like Saint Francis did for the people he preached to 1000 years ago.  The best I could do was to write a story... see what you think:

In those days a decree went out that the Maine shrimp season would be cancelled. It hit folks real hard. Some understood. Some didn't. Understand it or not, like it or not, it hit Joe particularly hard. His wife, Mary was expecting… any minute to tell the truth… and he had really been counting on the shrimp season to see them through the winter. Of course, things like babies don't wait for good times to be born and Mary went into labor. It happened faster than either of them expected, in fact there was no making it into town so she gave birth right there in the office of the Co-op. 

It was really just a shack at the end of the pier; vertical planks of wind and salt weathered wood hung with old buoys and a large sliding door decorated with a "lobster crossing" sign. A hydraulic winch used to swing crates and traps up from below stood by unused.  Inside it was dark.  More buoys were hung in the rafters over a lobster tank alive with the constant flow of water pumped up from the sea.  In the corner of the shack there was an enclosed office with a desk, a chair and a stove made out of an old metal barrel.  On the foot worn planks that served as the floor of that office, Mary gave birth to a son.

Out on the water, lobstermen who hadn't already given up for the season were pulling traps, braving the cold in the hopes of finding just a few more to sell as the price slowly crept up while the temperature quickly raced down.  Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and the guys were terrified and yelled... (well, you can imagine what they yelled, but we won’t go there since this is church after all) Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, I have come to bring you some incredible news. To you, yes, YOU... THIS day… God has sent his Son, to try once again to get it into your heads that God loves you!  Loves you more than you could ever imagine, no matter what you've done or not done and even in spite of your very creative language skills! To prove it, you’ll find the baby down at the Co-op, over where Fred works, you know the place.” And suddenly with that one angel were a whole ton of angels all singing “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on Earth.”

They got on their radios and told each other that they HAD to go see and off they went.   When they got to the dock, of course, Jimmy, who's always heavy handed with the throttles, came in too fast and hit hard, but then he’s always hard on his equipment. But as they climbed up, there in the shack at the end of the pier, just like the angel had said, was Mary and Joe... and the baby. 

Outside the sliding door looking in on the scene were seagulls perched on the drums of bait. They were quiet for a change. There were a pair of seals too that had hauled themselves up on a float and were looking in and even though it seemed impossible, the lobsters in the crates inside the tank were looking on too. 

They guys told Mary what they had seen out on the water; what the angel had told them about her baby and about the heavenly host. (They left out the part with their language and being scared, but the rest they told her word for word.) Then the lobstermen all went out and got a beer...or maybe several and they told everyone what they had seen out on the water that day, but Mary back home with her baby, kept it all in her heart.

Now, I know this isn't the way it happened 2000 years ago, but that doesn't mean it isn't the truth:  God loves YOU.  Jesus was born for YOU.  You folks that come here all the time AND you that got dragged here for just today AND everyone else who isn’t here, ALL OF YOU!  God loves you, no if’s, and’s or but’s, and God has sent YOU His Son to show YOU that love.  God loves you so much... thinks of you SO MUCH, no matter who you are, where you are, what you do, where you’ve been, what you’ve done, what you didn’t do... God has sent his Son to YOU to show you God’s INFINITE and UNCONDITIONAL love for YOU!  THAT is YOUR message this Christmas.  May you hear it.  May you KNOW it and hold it in your heart and may you pass it along to everyone you see and in everything you do in this season, and all throughout the year.  Amen.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Close the Frappin' Door!

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
In my house growing up we had a front door which was the one with a door bell, a back door which was a sliding glass door and the frappin’ door which went out to the garage.  I knew it was called that because my dad was always telling me to, “CLOSE THE FRAPPIN’ DOOR!”  One sure way to make my dad loose his ever lovin’ mind was to not answer that yes or no question with either a “yes” or a “no.” 

“Did you leave the door open”?  Well, of course I had left the door open BUT there was always a reason so I'd skip the answer and head straight to the explanation.  "I had to bring in a load of stuff from the garage."  Dad didn't want to hear it.  "Did you leave the door open?"  "I was just going out for a minute and I knew my arms would be full and I couldn't turn the knob."  "DID YOU LEAVE THE FRAPPIN' DOOR OPEN?"  When he called the door by it's full name I knew his head was near exploding so I would relent, "Yes," I would finally say.  "Thank you!" he replied.  These days as a parent with kids, I totally understand his frustration with both the question not being answered and the frappin' door being left open. 

Jesus obviously didn’t grow up in my house, because in today’s lesson, John the Baptist asked Jesus a “yes or no” question.  “Are you the one we have been waiting for or are we supposed to keep on waiting.”  Jesus did not give a “yes or no” answer.  Instead Jesus said, “Tell John that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.”  In my house that just would not have flown, but for whatever reason, Jesus’ strange and roundabout answer seemed to work for John.

I think the reason it worked is that John saw in Jesus’ answer the same kind of action that he had been calling people to do when he was preaching in the desert.  Out in the desert, John called people not just to THINK about their lives or even just SAY they wanted to change but to put those thoughts and words into ACTIONS.  The word “repent,” literally means to turn around and go another way.   For John, thoughts, ideas and words were fine, but ACTION was the thing that mattered.  So when Jesus responded to John’s question with the ACTIONS he had been doing, that spoke louder to John than words ever could... and you have to admit, it was an impressive list of actions.  

People were given sight.   Now keep in mind, it’s not just that people were physically healed of legal blindness but even more than that; people were healed of their inability to see God at work in their lives and in the world.  

The lame walk.  Again, people weren’t just physically healed of their inability to use their legs but more importantly, people were healed of their fear of going out into the world and doing what God was calling them to do.    

Lepers were cleaned.  Not only were people with a skin condition healed, but all people who were considered unfit, unwelcome, and unclean for any reason; race, gender, their past, their politics, who they loved, their class... ALL people who had been the outcasts, the forgotten and the lost were now welcomed, included and made to feel worthy.  

The deaf hear.  Not only were the physical connections made in people’s ears, but more importantly, people’s minds were being opened to finally hear and truly understand that God was at work, that God loved all of creation and God was making sure that all of creation would be together again.  

The dead were raised.  Not just were dead people given a new life, like the woman’s son or Lazarus.  But people who were never considered part of God’s promise before, people outside the family of Abraham, would finally be included and given the abundant life that comes from God, a life that begins now and never, ever ends! 

And finally (Jesus left most important for last, which is how they made lists like this back in Jesus’ day) the poor have Good News brought to them.  The Good News isn’t just that God sent Jesus.  It’s also God’s vision for how the world is supposed to work... it’s supposed to be a place where those who now struggle to feed their families, find a place to live and heat their homes will have what they need to live.  No one will have too much and everyone will have enough.  On top of that it also means that all of us who are poor in spirit, who’s faith is at times, not exactly overflowing with confidence and unconditional trust, will have God’s infinite and unconditional love brought right to where we live.  For me, God coming to me is really Good News, because when I’m struggling with believing and find it hard to see God at work in the world, the LAST thing I need is someone telling me to go “find Jesus”, or “get saved” or “make yourself right with God.”

That’s the Good News of this lesson, but there is some hard news here as well.  The hard news is that you and I, as followers of Jesus, are called to keep those same actions moving and happening now in our world.  Jesus healed our blindness.  We’re now being called to see the people in our community who have been forgotten.  Jesus healed our lameness.  We’re now being called not just to wait here for people to come to us, but take God’s love out to folks wherever they might be.  Jesus welcomed us no matter what baggage we were carrying.  We’re now being called to welcome others that have been left out because of their baggage.  Our deafness is healed.  Now, we’re being called to hear not just a person cry for help in an emergency, but also to hear how the world needs to change so every day isn’t an emergency.  We’ve been given new life in Christ.  We’re now being called to bring life to others not so much with words but with our actions. 

I don’t know about you, but the part about God’s love coming to me sounds really good... it is just the message of hope I need in these dark, winter days... but that next part about me turning around and bringing God’s love out to others.... well, especially in these dark, cold, winter days that seems pretty overwhelming.  I’m from a long line of stoic, Swedish, rarely smiling, easy chair sitting, bland food eating, keep to yourself kind of folk and it’s cold, dark and depressing out there these days.   Hearing that Jesus has taken away all my good excuses to stay in my easy chair and away from people I don't know... well, it’s uncomfortable to hear.  

It is uncomfortable.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s actually a bit scary to be honest, but it really is what God is calling us to do.  The only thing I can tell you that might help is that we aren’t called to do it alone.  Jesus did not ask us to take on the world’s problems individually.  Instead we are called to do it as a community... as the Body of Christ... so as our eyes are opened together and as we begin to see the forgotten around us... as we hear of our neighbor’s hurts and hopes... as we help each other to get up and bring those neighbors God’s radical and unconditional love, compassion and we together welcome all people in spite of their baggage to join us in making the world into the place of God’s vision, I have just a little more advice...lean on one another and remind one another of God's infinite, unconditional love and then, on your way out into the world, remember... Close the Frappin’ Door!  Amen.